Increasing acceptance of microtransactions-based MMOs means many Asian companies -- already well-versed in the business model are migrating East, often bringing impressive records along with them.
As a global company, Beijing-based Perfect World International says it plays host to some 50 million registered users across its portfolio of free-to-play, microtransactions-based MMOs -- one million concurrently at peak. Since it founded a U.S. arm in June 2008, it's seen 2 million North American and European registrants for its eponymous MMO, Perfect World. It's also known to Western gamers as the publisher of Runic Games' long-awaited Torchlight, the game to rise from the ashes of Flagship Studios' Diablo-like Mythos.
"We see ourselves as kind of the Blizzard of China," company product manager Jonathan Belliss tells Gamasutra. Perfect World was chosen from about 12 titles in the company's purview to lead the company's major push into the Western market.
"We actually have the luxury of picking and choosing what titles to bring from China to the U.S.," Belliss says. "We really took a lot of care and time to decide which titles are most eligible, or most compatible with the North American or Western market."
"I've seen a lot of growth in this somewhat niche industry that's blowing up year by year -- Perfect World has definitely outperformed everything we thought it was going to do."
Finding The Right Fit
No matter how prevalent free-to-play MMOs are becoming internationally, Belliss says that's not to say any company, even those whose titles are highly established in the East, can simply port any old game over. "Obviously, there are a lot of taste differences between MMORPGs in Asia and MMORPG gamers in the USA," Belliss says. "One being questing -- is the game more quest oriented or more grind oriented? Is it primarily focused on PvE or PvP?"
These are key questions in determining whether an Asian game is a good fit for Western users, Belliss asserts. "A lot of Eastern games are extremely focused on grinding and player-versus-player -- but a lot of studies we've seen [on U.S. players] show that the ratio of people who are interested in killing each other versus people who are interested in killing monsters is about one to three."
Other basic differences in audience tastes are interface-oriented: "In Asia, players tend to like to click to move, whereas in the U.S., WASD [key schemes are] much more comfortable," he explains. Whether or not an MMO can be adapted for the modes and interfaces Westerners generally prefer ought to be a key consideration for any Asian company hoping to take a successful title global, says Belliss. The most obvious differences -- visual and stylistic ones -- can actually act as an advantage.
The Western MMO market tends to be saturated with high fantasy and traditional science fiction themes, and the best approach to an aesthetic dominated by World of Warcraft is to offer an alternative.
"Initially, one of our first thoughts was this game is way too Chinese," Belliss laughs. "It's got this 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'-type combat -- players can jump ridiculously high, they're surfing on swords and riding giant swans. But something we've come to learn is that a lot of people are already really familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and elves, and when players step into Perfect World, they see things they've never seen before, these monsters and creatures from Chinese mythology."
So a wildly-different cultural background for an MMO can actually come as refreshing to Western audiences, and necessary adaptations must be made on the mechanical level, not necessarily that of visual and tone.
Lingering doubts of how well Westerners, used to subscription fees, will embrace the microtransactions business model seem to be ebbing away. Belliss credits the favorable trend to cultural changes in the U.S.
"In 2005, 2006, the microtransactions model was nowhere near as prominent as is is right now -- Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, those are perfect examples of players paying for little bits of content," he says. Everywhere, users are buying in increments, be it wallpapers and themes for their video game console interfaces, iTunes songs, and small items on social networks, to name just a few.
"Everyone is very familiar with microtransactions now," says Belliss, "but a majority of people are still not familiar with free-to-play MMOs." Meeting new acquaintances both socially and professionally, Belliss points out many have a hard time grasping how his company earns money when its product is free and buying is optional.
But the largest factor Belliss sees as likely to change this unfamiliarity and drive the broader adoption of free-to-play MMOs is ever-skyrocketing quality levels of these products. "The quality of free-to-play games today, in 2009 and into 2010, is of a much higher standard than it was in 2005, 2006," he says. "Back then, if you compared subscription games versus free-to-play, the gap in between them was huge, both in terms of graphical quality and actual game quality."
"I used to work at another free-to-play company, and the amount of money they were making on very poor quality games boggles my mind," he adds. "Upon joining Perfect World and seeing the monetization strategy behind these games -- just the gameplay in general -- I was really amazed. It's really something that has advanced a lot since its initial stages."
And the users must be aware of that quality on every level for an import title to achieve respect and success on a global scale, Belliss continues. "Many people think, 'I'll just sell some hats or some sunglasses' -- those were the first steps into free to play, and a lot of people really didn't like it."
The trend of relatively thoughtless price assignments for useless in-game items was born of the understanding that users like customization, Belliss says. "Not to say that customization isn't a big driver of cash shop sales, but it really revolves around game design and your development team understanding microtransactions."
Challenges and Opportunities In Market Saturation
As so many companies attempt to forge a road for free-to-play MMOs in the U.S., these early stumbles in the gold rush has made the challenge steeper for companies like Perfect World. "There are some dangers coming with the incredible saturation in the market," he says. And the ill-considered rush to market for poor-quality and poorly-monetized titles meant "a lot of [users] got burned, and they won't touch the pot ever again; a lot of people associate free-to-play with poor quality because of that."
"We're approaching a point where the saturation becomes so heavy where, let's say, in the console market right now probable 10 to 20 percent of titles are of Metacritic rating 8 or above, and everything else below that is probably the other 80 percent," says Belliss. "And I think that's kind of the threshold that free-to-play is hitting in the very near future."
"There are a lot of companies that see money being made over here -- they take whatever crappy game they have, flip it into English regardless of whether the English is good, and just try to make some money over here," he says. But he also says the company watches the horizon for its rivals' efforts, says Belliss, and there is a massive push of high-quality free-to-play MMOs just ahead, he says.
But rather than feel threatened, he's looking forward to a broad, competitive range of high-quality, free-to-play MMOs hitting Western shores. "It's definitely healthy for the market," he says. "Oversaturation and competition breeds quality, and quality is what gamers need and deserve, so I do think it's good."
The Road Ahead
As for Perfect World, it's got its own plans. In addition to the Perfect World MMO, it's looking forward to Torchlight: "We're very happy about that project. We're looking forward to developing an MMO with [Runic Games], putting our knowledge together and making something strong there," says Belliss.
"There are also other initiatives I ca't talk about, but in terms of the free-to-play market, we do have a very aggressive stance," he adds. "We do think there is a lot of marketshare to be taken, a lot of other strong competitors in the North American market."
One such strong rival is Korean-headquartered Nexon (Maplestory, Kart Rider), Belliss says. "We respect them. We expect to grow through competition with them, and I think if we actually take out the measuring stick we'd measure up quite well."
In part thanks to steadily increasing competition, and in part due to a Western audience grown slightly gun-shy thanks to poor experiences with low-quality free-to-play games, companies like Perfect World still have their work cut out for them, and areas like marketing, customer service and thorough testing will be key.
"In our case, you start playing and we have to earn your money, prove to you that this is worth depositing some cash into and spending some money on," says Belliss. "So obviously customer service is a huge focus, tech support, QA, polish -- if anybody has any sort of issue it gets resolved within minutes, not hours."
Done right, free-to-play MMOs have the chance to capitalize on an audience prepared to spend cash -- one more cultural trend contributing to the business model's success. "The amount of disposable income young adults have these days -- I've seen students spend thousands of dollars a month," marvels Belliss. "Cash shop items sell for 100 bucks that have no functionality whatsoever, and people buy it. I wish I'd had that much money when I was a kid!"